COLUMBIA — Missouri guard Zaire Taylor had extra motivation Saturday night against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
It wasn’t because it was a rivalry (Arkansas-Pine Bluff is 0-9 and received $70,000 just to play here.) It was because he had just accomplished something he wasn't even sure was going to happen. After a week full of final exams and practice, the senior guard graduated Saturday, receiving his diploma in Sociology.
Taylor used that energy and emotion throughout a game that Missouri won easily 88-70. He used that to score nine points on just four shots. Taylor couldn’t hide his excitement, especially during a time out in the second half. He couldn't help but smile when it was announced that he had graduated.
Missouri coach Mike Anderson said he could just see his excitement, and even moved morning shootaround to later in the day, so Zaire could receive his diploma.
“I saw his mom, she was in practice yesterday, and I just can’t imagine the joy in her heart,” Anderson said. “Can you imagine what was going through his mind on the floor, after walking across the stage and now lead this basketball team?”
Then with three minutes left Saturday night, Zaire Taylor put on a show.
On a fast break, the guard bounced the ball hard on the ground. The ball rose. And then he picked it out of mid-air and dunked the ball. Missouri coach Mike Anderson just shook his head, as if to say, 'Why not? He deserves it.'
“Did he dunk?” Anderson teased after the game. “Oh yeah. Happy graduation Zaire.”
The road to graduation wasn’t always easy for the senior guard who transferred to Missouri from Delaware. He said he didn’t even know if he was going to graduate.
“A lot of people don’t know Zaire’s story,” Anderson said. “It puts a lot of joy in my heart. A guy who’s been here for couple of years and graduates. That’s what this experience is all about.”
The Staten Island native is known for his behind-the-back passes and tricky plays that may appear too flashy in the game for Anderson. But he rarely makes mistakes. Anderson said the dunk was vintage Taylor.
“I think he wrote on the card what he wants, and it was, ‘Zaire ‘Big Shot’ Taylor,’” Anderson said laughing. “Only Zaire would put an emphasis on that.”
Taylor said he couldn’t have imagined anything better. Missouri was able to lead most the game, and even held a 27-point lead early in the first half.
“Its just a good feeling graduating,” Taylor said. “A lot of us wasn’t even sure that was going to happen, but the win felt better.”
The Tigers will try and take this momentum into Wednesday night’s game against Illinois. Missouri has lost its past nine against Illinois in the "Braggin’ Rights" series played in St. Louis. Anderson said the game will be a good measuring stick for how Missouri has progressed.
"It's a neutral setting and it is against an Illinois team that is hurting for a win just like we are hurting for a win. It's a game to find the identity of our basketball team," Anderson said. "They call it the bragging game, but we haven't had much to brag about."